How do I bust through a plateau to continue getting results?

March 23, 2013

Q: I have been working out for over a year and have experienced great results but have come to a point where my workouts are stale and progress is slow. I have been told by others at the gym that I have hit a plateau. Do you have any suggestions that would help me change things up and get my routine producing results again?

A: For most people, going to the gym is like a scene from the movie “Groundhog Day,” where every day repeats itself and nothing changes. The problem with this type of training is in order to get results, you have to constantly mix things up or you’ll hit a plateau and results will slow to a snail’s pace. That’s why you must learn to make small changes that consistently challenge your body and force it to make continued progress. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Switch the order of exercises

Conventional wisdom says do compound exercises - exercises that work groups of muscles, like squats, bench presses, deadlifts and military presses – first, and do shaping exercises last, but I’ve found that switching the order can be a great way to shock your body and take workouts to a new level. Try doing leg extensions before squats, cable flies before dumbbell bench presses, dumbbell side laterals before military presses and tricep pushdowns before dips, and you will reach a new level of fatigue that will force your muscles to adapt and grow.

Lift heavy to light

The average weight lifting program consists of three increasing sets per exercise with an easy, medium and hard set, but the problem with this system is only the heavy set is challenging enough to exhaust muscle fibers. You can fix this problem by changing the way you structure your sets, lifting heavy to light and dropping the weight only to get the prescribed amount of repetitions for each additional set. This technique will ensure all sets are equal and that a lot of muscle fibers are recruited, giving you a lot more bang for your buck.

Increase TUT

Time under tension, or tut, refers to the amount of time the muscle spends under tension during a lift; this is another way to increase the intensity of your workout and bust through difficult plateaus. If you lift the weight fast, you might be able to lift more weight, but your time under tension is short and the muscles aren’t required to work as hard. Control the weight; lift it slower, and time under tension increases and muscles are forced to work harder for longer periods of time. The important thing to remember while applying the principle of time under tension is that even though you are doing slower, more controlled movements, you must still lift weights heavy enough to feel an intense burn but light enough to perform proper form.

Cycle the intensity

In today’s age of canned fitness programs, workouts are judged more on how sore you get instead of how well you recover, and this will inevitably lead to injury and overtraining. Remember, the idea is to train hard and recover fast by systematically adding small changes that challenge your body while maintaining proper rest and nutrition. This means you must start slow and progressively work toward harder workouts as your body adapts to the workload. When you reach one set of goals, back off and slowly work toward other goals before going all out again.

Take periodic breaks

Regardless of how experienced you may be, everyone needs a break now and then to keep their bodies fresh and responsive to exercise.

That's why it’s important to schedule two to three times a year to get out of the gym for a week and do something different. This will recharge your batteries and physically and mentally prepare you for new challenges.

Modify exercises

There are countless ways to change things up to give your workout the spark needed for new progress; you just have to be creative and not be afraid to try different things.

Simple things like changing handgrips, spacing your feet differently, changing angles or adding body weight exercises to your routine can breathe new life into your workout and keep you progressing.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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